I recently read a great article by Ashley Friedlein, ‘Why a Chief Digital Officer is a bad idea’. While I completely respect his opinion, I do disagree. 

Ashley Friedlein is the CEO and Co-founder of Econsultancy. He is a great author, highly successful entrepreneur and digital catalyst.  

I have enjoyed much of his ideas, knowledge and rhetoric. I was prompted to be a signatory on his ‘Modern Marketing Manifesto’, and I encourage all digital enthusiasts to do the same. 

The beauty of blogs and platforms like Econsultancy, is the opportunity that Web 2.0 brought us, self-expression.

After having a healthy discussion with Ashley, I have decided to elaborate on my position, which is that, for many organisations, the Chief Digital Officer is a necessity. This post provides me with the opportunity to propel the conversation and obtain more feedback and opinion.  

The role of the Chief Digital Officer

The role of the CDO is not to bandaid any business problems but to solve many serious underlying problems within a business, a business that is trying and wanting to adapt with haste.

As with any department, digital teams need to be properly empowered within the organization and they need to be collaborative with other business units. Someone needs to drive this and many current employees don’t have the time, knowledge, skill-set and experience to do so.

Technology progression has occurred way too fast and a plethora of businesses have failed to keep up, in many cases they risk becoming a casualty of the digital revolution, not necessarily as a result of poor management.

The Chief Digital Officer - Dominic Byrne

Most C-level executives don’t understand digital, not this generation of them anyway. The CDO may not be needed in 15 years’ time, but companies need them now if they want to adapt and remain competitive.

All executives need to learn digital, yes, but digital experts themselves, struggle to keep abreast of the future and they are the ones that live and breathe it. 

Many organisations do not have senior management experience with digital and while some staff may progress up the ranks rapidly, most will lack the skills in identifying opportunities for businesses to refine their existing operations and to open up new revenue streams through the measured application of appropriate technologies.

Whether this involves generating growth by adopting new technologies and platforms or is the result of converting and streamlining traditional analogue processes through a transition to digital systems. 

The skills needed for a CDO

A CDO needs to contribute a lot more than marketing; they need to bring skills that many traditional CIOs and CMOs do not possess in business today.

Technology automation, customer relationship management, knowledge management, enterprise social, collaboration tools, digital marketing and ecommerce; they are all parts of the digital pie that need to be considered in a company’s digital transformation to grow and retain market share.

There is a lot at stake when transforming the culture of a business through visionary leadership, partnering with executives, colleagues and staff to identify and execute on the projects that will set them up for success. If this change is managed well, with a clear understanding of the business outcomes and matched by a strong vision for the future, then wild success is possible.

But if you get it wrong, then it can be a disaster. Knowing how to change is just as important as knowing when to change. Just ask AOL, Yahoo, MySpace or any number of companies who’ve struggled to make the shift. 

Brand integrity

Perhaps the greatest challenge is ensuring that brand integrity is maintained and that the business is comfortable with each step it takes through the process of change. One of the great dangers is of transformation being too complete and the company losing what intangible elements made it unique in the first place.

This is the delicate balance between all the promise of technological innovation and the core of brand values. Finding that balance point involves the courage to walk right out to the edge, and the discipline to stop short of falling over the edge. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s also not for the reckless cowboys. 

We may look back and chuckle at the need for CDOs but many corporations need them now, otherwise we will be looking back and chuckling at the business that once was. 

Businesses failing to understand the need

All of which points to a clear need for a CDO, but I believe that many businesses are failing to understand the need due to the lack of a clear definition of the role and its responsibilities.

Rather than an intrusion into the traditional roles of CIO and CMO as demonstrated by the Venn diagram, the role of a CDO encompasses much more and should really be understood as a reliever (rather than a generator) of friction.

The CDO should work with all the business units, as well as many of the possible technologies and future technology opportunities available to the organisation at large.

The CDO should work with the CIO on customer facing platforms and internal productivity solutions, helping to support innovation within the company while reducing the stress on ICT to solve every technological challenge directly.

The CDO should also work with the CMO on marketing initiatives that need any level of technology integration. 

While I agree there is a massive trend heading this way, I don’t believe in Gartner’s prediction that by 2017, the CMO will spend more on IT than the CIO. In most businesses the infrastructure, hardware and software enabling costs will outweigh marketing-technology spend for another decade to come. 

In saying that, I have to acknowledge that there are so many innovative tools, application, channels, platforms and tactics to benchmark and consider and these fall somewhere between the purview of a CIO or CMO.

The tasks of a CDO

A CDO needs to assist with these decsions and support growth plans and counter risks associated with digital disruption, help an organisation build online sales, create jobs and new market opportunities, and counter new competitors. 

The CMO and CIO need to carry on and do what they do best, but they need to work more closely together (easier said that done as there are massive siloed problems in many organisations between these two departments).

The CDO can help bridge this relationship with their T style profile. (Ability to apply broad knowledge across situations with deep functional disciplinary skills.) 

The CDO needs to educate the C Suite and the rest of the business as part of their role, so that each executive is up-skilled with digital knowledge. The CDO should report to the CEO and be granted much autonomy to work across all levels of senior and board management.

The CDO needs to work on a two to five year plan, ensure the digital plan is inline with the marketing and business plan by reviewing internal capabilities and infrastructure, talking with customers, educating stakeholders, creating a roadmap and measure outcomes. Once they have achieved their goals of transformation, then they should move on, conducting another project in an organisation needing help with digital change.

The CDO role could well become obsolete in due time. If this is the case, ex-CDOs will become GMs, many will become bigger and better CMOs or CIOs (depending on their natural inclinations, and with all the contemporary skills needed in business), or even CEOs

Digital’s battle for respect in the boardroom is still in a laggard state for many organisations and changing the culture is part of this inherent problem. Hopefully your organisation has the internal skills to adapt with agility and may not need the position of a CDO, but for many organisations, the Chief Digital Officer is an urgent necessity.

Dominic Byrne

Published 23 July, 2013 by Dominic Byrne

Dominic Byrne is Chief Digital Officer at Tyres4U / Tyreright and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can also find Dominic on Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn. He blogs here

7 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (12)

Save or Cancel
Rob Mettler

Rob Mettler, Director of Digital Business at PA Consulting

For many organisations the CDO role will be a key stepping stone on their digital journey, a signal to the board, investors and the organisation that change is being embraced. It provides the board with an empowered authoritative presence ensuring that digital is a continuous theme in the boardroom, both strategically and operationally. Critically they must transform all the business units not just marketing and IT to achieve success – influencing, transformation and stakeholder engagement skills as critical here as their digital IQ.

Interestingly the successful CDO will render their role obsolete, with board and organisation upgraded for digital and now in a position to continually adapt to the every changing world, the individual transitioning to another C-level post or moving on to guide another organisation to destination digital.

over 4 years ago

Dominic Byrne

Dominic Byrne, Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at DigiToro

Cheers Rob, great comments. Dom

over 4 years ago



This is an excellent article and explains the purpose of a CDO beautifully. Over recent years, Digital has "happened" to many businesses, rather than something that they planned and prepared for. It is hard keeping pace with digital technology and aligning that with different marketing practices and therefore for some organisations, a CDO with a blend of IT and Marketing (with one eye also to the general operating environment) can be the way forward until the next generation of employees come through that are suitably skilled.

over 4 years ago



This is an excellent article and explains the purpose of a CDO beautifully. Over recent years, Digital has "happened" to many businesses, rather than something that they planned and prepared for. It is hard keeping pace with digital technology and aligning that with different marketing practices and therefore for some organisations, a CDO with a blend of IT and Marketing (with one eye also to the general operating environment) can be the way forward until the next generation of employees come through that are suitably skilled.

over 4 years ago



Oops - pesky word verification results in double post!

over 4 years ago

Phil Raynor

Phil Raynor, Owner at Ecomsult Digital Consultancy

Great article, Dom.

I agree but would take the CDO's influence even further: from HR to Legal, Logistics to Brand, Retail to Finance, the new world order of digital will touch every facet of an organisation.

There is certainly now a requirement for a position that has a complete, non-siloed overview, coupled with the gravitas and board-level authority, to allow for the digital transition of an organisation.

over 4 years ago


Dave Thackeray

Since the CDO appears to require a very broad skillset, do you think some kind of formalised qualification should be introduced providing CDOs with the tools and insight they need to succeed?

over 4 years ago

Dominic Byrne

Dominic Byrne, Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at DigiToro

Thanks @Diana, the speed of change has been so exponential that even agile businesses have been caught out.

@Phil, thanks for the feedback. Yeah, I think the CDO needs to work with all departments, as digital automation is possible at every level. The primary challengers I have witnessed are cultural shift and job security issues that go with it. Many IT and marketing departments are already in contentious relationships and now new digital employees often clash with marketing and they are trying to achieve the same goals. A large part of the role is educating ‘ALL’ the internal stakeholders along the journey.

@Dave, in my opinion I think current employment opportunity will be more based on experience and character over specific CDO qualification. However any form of supporting qualification is a massive help. The combination of skills is scarce and it’s why some companies are willing to pay more money to a CDO than a CIO. I think the tools needed lean more towards marketing, especially user experience and end -usability. Having a qualified professional that really gets marketing, see’s things from the customers shoes (B2B or B2C) and is technological literate is the ingredient needed, a real marketing technologist.

over 4 years ago


Melissa Katrincic

I couldn't agree with this statement more: "Digital’s battle for respect in the boardroom is still in a laggard state for many organisations and changing the culture is part of this inherent problem."

Agree on all of your points on the characteristics, strengths and requirements for a CDO in today's organizations.

The key for making this role one that is embraced by the C-suite will be on our ability to niche the integration between the CMO and CTO as well without a sense of territory staking and land-grabbing. A good CDO should be able to incorporate the needs of these two internal organizations into the digital strategy and innovations in order to gain the necessary strategic alignment.

Without this alignment, the role of the CDO will be a non-starter in so many organizations that prefer the status quo and established C-suite relationships. I inherently see the need of the CDO after experiencing many marketing and IT organizations that are unable to embrace a shared vision. Walking that line will be the CDO's sweet spot!

over 4 years ago

Dominic Byrne

Dominic Byrne, Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at DigiToro

@Melissa, thanks for your feedback. Your comments are spot-on. There is a real "sweet spot", a few mediation and political skills would be a big help in this role.

That's why it's important for the CDO to report to the CIO with a large amount of autonomy. The CEO needs to tell the C-Suite, "we are here and need to be there, and this appointment is going to get us to that goal, it's imperative that you work with this new position as its vital for our sustainability."

The CDO needs to spend a large amount of time educating everyone in the business on his strategy. If the CDO loses respect by any of the C-suite in his early days, it will make his role even more challenging.

over 4 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

Hi Dominic

I'm glad we've managed to excite further debate on this topic ;)

I find it hard to disagree with what you say but I'm just trying to think through the practicalities of what you suggest. Does your CDO have his/her own team, budget and P&L then? Or is he/she more like an internal consultant/champion/educator/facilitator?

And this is someone that all the others believe is here for a while and then going once he/she has 'done the job'?

My observation would be that if your CDO does not have a P&L, and team, or is seen to be a temporary 'consultant' that he/she may lack enough 'teeth' to affect any real change. And if he/she does have teeth to make real change then, effectively, at least the CMO and possible CTO are really reporting to him/her. Which will cause interesting tensions to say the least and why bother having them? Have the CDO and then just a 'head of marketing' and 'head of IT' to do the more prosaic stuff.

Apart perhaps from the very largest companies, and soon maybe even them, I'm starting to wonder whether these CDO people with their amazingly broad skills and capabilities outlined in your post and the comments shouldn't just be the CEO?

I could give various examples of where this has already happened. In media someone like Tom Bureau (http://www.immediate.co.uk/people/tom-bureau/) is arguably a would-be CDO who is CEO. If I become CEO of a larger company it would probably be for my digital expertise so I'd be a CEO-cum-CDO too?

about 4 years ago

Dominic Byrne

Dominic Byrne, Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at DigiToro

Hi Ashley,

Thanks for kicking the conversation along and apologies for this tardy response, I’ve been crazy busy, a good thing.

I agree with a bunch of your points.

“Lacking of teeth” to evoke change is a major challenge. The CEO is probably the only executive who has the mandate to empower the change across the business. Technology is the easy part; it’s the leadership and aligning technology with business goals, project management and stakeholder buy-in that determines the success. If there wasn’t a large void in our chronological timeline of CEO’s and CMO’s lacking technical knowledge, digital information and literacy, then there probably wouldn’t be the need for CDO’s in today’s business. I think many CDO’s have the potential to and will become CEO’s.

The traditional models of thinking has changed, many CEO’s have realized this, the ones that haven’t are in a business losing market share. If a CEO lacks customer facing technical knowledge and she wants to keep her job and remain competitive, then an extra set of hands to execute this is a very viable option. This wont come without its political problems to cautiously mitigate.

You are exactly right. If you have digital expertise combined with CEO experience and skills, then you would become CEO-cum-CDO too. You may be this candidate already!

about 4 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.